It must have been odd for middle-age black men like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson to suddenly find themselves revered by a bunch of scraggly, skinny, long-haired white boys with funny accents. Even the second generation of Chicago bluesmen A Buddy Guy, Bo Diddley A found that they had achieved legendary status amongst the Brit pack. (Seek out Eric Burdon and the Animals's "Story of Bo Diddley" for the ultimate lowdown on the subject: "Hey, Jerome, what do you think about these cats doin' our material?")
It seems things have come full-circle. The Manchester-London-Liverpool lads -- inspired by the Mississippi-Chicago-Detroit elders -- who redefined rock and roll for a generation are now providing the raw material for the current crop of blues players.
Those fortunate enough to witness local alt-rocker/blues belter Kathy Fleischmann's set at the Riverwalk Blues Fest would have heard an excellent creaky, Delta-blues rendition of "You Got the Silver." Only it ain't so creaky. The tune is a Jagger/Richards composition from Let it Bleed, not an obscure selection from the Robert Johnson songbook (although Fleischmann, accompanied by John the Cop on acoustic slide, and the Other Guy on bass, played some of those, too). And if you see the Cop with his old partner, Delta Nick, ask them to play their version of the Stones's "No Expectations." You'll swear it was written on some lonesome Mississippi levee, not in the back of a Chivas-bottles-and-blonds-littered tour bus.
Many a blues convert (this writer included) learned the repertoire from adulterated sources: Just who is this Willie Dixon character writing all these great Stones songs? And Ellis MacDaniel? McKinley Morganfield? Their songs were irresistible: "Little Red Rooster." "You Can't Judge a Book by Looking at the Cover." "King Bee." They dripped machismo, menace, raw sex.
And they certainly appealed to rebellious working-class kids -- like Mick and Keith -- growing up in dreary English cities. Somehow they related wholeheartedly to the African-American experience, at least as it was expressed in song. And, as the English continue to do to this day, they fed the imported American goods through the filter of their own backgrounds and created something altogether different. And then shipped it back to the States.
A generation of kids grooved to Skip James, John Lee Hooker, Big Willie, Muddy, and the Wolf, all thanks to Cream, the Stones, the Animals, the Yardbirds. These recruits may even have been oblivious that they were being drawn in by the blues. And although Clapton, Beck, and Richards continued to pay homage to their heroes throughout their careers (John Lee probably never performed before as many people as he did when invited by the Stones to play "Boogie Chillun" during their Steel Wheels tour), they soon evolved into distinct, albeit hybrid, styles. Which are now being de-evolutionized and returned to their roots.
Chris Smither, who wrote the slowgrinding Bonnie Raitt blues hit "Love Me Like a Man," recently recorded the old Blind Willie McTell tune, "Statesboro Blues." This song had, however, been placed in the collective radio-listening consciousness by the Allman Brothers, who tricked it up with more volts than an electric eel in iron jockey shorts. Smither reunited it with its Delta roots.
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For some rockers, going back to the roots is a shorthand way of gaining credibility. Paul Rodgers, ex-Bad Company frontman, and rock and roll wildman Pat Travers both made less-than-authentic bids at claiming blues authority with recent albums. Rodgers's tribute to Muddy Waters certainly showed a deep familiarity with Morganfield's catalogue. It just seemed to ignore Muddy's sensibilities in favor of grinding heavy metal. Travers, who had the temerity to call his last effort Blues Tracks, covers some true classics (electrically tortured renditions of songs by Dixon and McTell will make you scream "Free Willy!") but he changes nothing about his playing style to reflect the genre. Ironically, Travers first came to prominence with the bluesaboogie "Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights)." How does rocker Rick Derringer fare with his Back to the Blues effort? Find out this weekend at Tobacco Road (626 Miami Ave., 374-1198).
However, bluesman Buddy Guy -- who has performed live with the Stones's Ron Wood -- has retooled the playing surface somewhat, blurring the distinctions between blues and rock. Although it was Guy who influenced Jimi Hendrix, there can be no doubt the master was in turn influenced by the prodigy, endearing him to a white, crossover rock audience. Guy's last two albums relied heavily on this rock appeal, with guests such as Jeff Beck and Paul Rodgers lending their black T-shirted chops to the efforts. And an axgrinder such as "Country Man" from 1993's Feels Like Rain certainly mines Electric Ladyland, with flurries of notes pouring forth like Robert Johnson couldn't have imagined in his most hellish hallucination.
Meanwhile blues artists such as the late John Campbell (certainly plagued by hellish hallucinations of his own A he played a frighteningly powerful version of Led Zeppelin's take on Memphis Minnie's "When the Levee Breaks" on his last album), slide-player extraordinaire Dave Hole, and South Florida native Tinsley Ellis further push the blues envelope into rock territory. No guitarist would play the same after Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan, both of whom mightily straddled the canyon between blues and rock.
So just what is blues and who can lay claim to it? Whatever the definition, it's not about flattened fifths, twelve-bar progressions, blue notes, and tonics. As it has been since before W.C. Handy first wrote Mayor Crump's campaign march, the blues ain't nothin' but a good man or a good woman feelin' bad. And singing about it.